Daniel Shmachtenberger asks of us, how do we know what we believe is true? His notes on investigating our own biases.

  1. On cognitive bias: bad-case forecasts based on the continuation of current trends are intended to motivate changes to those trends to avoid those scenarios. These forecasts are hopefully self-negating prophecies. If people follow the hygiene and physical isolation suggestions, and institutions act accordingly, then the worst will be avoided. Then people with conservative bias will say “see, the whole thing was overblown hype, it didn’t turn out that bad”. But it only didn’t turn out that bad because people followed the precautionary protocols. In the domain of effective risk prevention, the result of effective work is that the risks don’t happen. The majority of people don’t understand this and take for granted the relative ease of their lives (from the catastrophes they believe were overblown) because other people worked to mitigate them.
  2. On direction to err: we don’t yet know if herd immunity will occur. Let’s say it doesn’t and we try a strategy assuming it does: then we will have brought our own ruin. Lets say herd immunity does emerge but we err on the safe side until we know and isolate now….then we slow the spike of critical cases that would still overwhelm the medical system and cause many unnecessary deaths, and move towards group immunity without unnecessary loss of life or unwarranted risk.
  3. On individual freedoms: even libertarians believe in the non-aggression principle. Getting others sick (asymptomatic transmission) with a possibly fatal illness is violating non-aggression. If you turn out to be sick and infect people, this is reckless negligence.
  4. Sloppy generalizations: “SARS and H1N1 and Ebola turned out to be not huge deals – this is just another overblown scare”. More sweeping versions compare this to Cuban Missile crisis, Y2K, and 2012 as a penchant for unwarranted catastrophism. See points 1 and 2 above. And look at the statistics carefully here – this is not in the same category as those previous outbreaks. Please compare the spread, fatality, and hospitalization rates. The tendency to generalize in this way tends to be an expression of a status quo bias.
  5. Meaningless comparisons: comparing the current death toll numbers to the death rates from heart attacks or cancer or car accidents or the flu. The issue to consider is the elevation of death above the base rate and the effect that spike has. Also, there are a lot of major consequences other than death.
  6. Not understanding exponential growth rates: focusing on the current infection rates without factoring an approximately three day doubling time. It’s really worth doing that math clearly.
  7. Focusing on the wrong numbers: believing the reported infection rates when we aren’t testing anywhere near enough to know how many people are infected. Focusing on current infection numbers over projected numbers, current deaths (early in the cycle) rather than impending deaths…death rates rather than all serious illness, etc.
  8. Thinking that positivity and optimism require not seeing risks and harms clearly, as opposed to thinking that an effective optimist wants to see the risks as clearly as possible to be empowered to come up with good solutions that ensure positive outcomes.
  9. Shortsightedness of the economic harm concerns: yes, countrywide physical isolation will have a profound effect on the economy, at every scale. But it will be less severe of an effect than an illness spike overwhelming the medical system and increasing susceptibility to more serious follow on effects, more total people getting infected and needing more treatment and being less capable, more deaths, etc. It’s also not looking at the bigger picture that the global economic system is already fundamentally broken and only surviving due to artificial life support measures (negative interest rate bonds, trillions in quantitive easing, bail outs, deficit spending, etc.) This situation has the ability to catalyze a needed restructuring of our global financial systems and may very well have to before its over.
  10. Myopia: as far as the medical implications go, focusing on the death toll alone, rather than also considering the significant effects for everyone who is hospitalized. Also focusing on the medical issues predominantly without also focusing on the more serious second and third order cascade effects that will occur if not properly addressed: economic collapse, geopolitical shifts in power, vulnerability to all types of attacks and bad actors, disruption of critical goods supply chains, utilities and infrastructure, etc. Thinking of this as an issue that can be solved solely by national governments rather than requiring global cooperation. Also, focusing on this pandemic in isolation rather than it as a signal of how unprepared we are for pandemics (including ones that could be much more lethal)…and for catastrophic risks of all kinds. Systemic fragility and an explosion of global catastrophic risks, combined with inadequate preparedness and response capacities is the most important issue this hopefully brings to the forefront.
All of these orient people to misassess the actual risk landscape as well as the context that gave rise to it, and thus, what constitutes appropriate response.
Take a few steps back, really think about the above points, notice your own emotional desires and predispositions that give rise to biased assessment…
In addition to the above, there are obviously also biases that tend in the other direction, towards panic, hysteria, hopelessness, blame, and ungrounded catastrophism.
There are even more subtle mind viruses that are problematic in a time like this, like wanting to seem in the know or useful so spreading information even if it’s not really value-adding. This ends up being noise that crowds out the signal and makes it harder for people to find the relevant info they need.

A number of others:

There are many more. Maybe add to the list in the comments – it’s a good exercise.

Take away: we are at a real inflection point for the world that can lead to very different outcomes.

The real factors are not all obvious. New factors can emerge moment to moment.
The clarity of your thinking and speaking and acting is more important than usual.
And the pulls to various forms of unclarity are higher.
Slow reactive behaviors.
Investigate for your own biases.
Seek more grounded clarity.
Then share and act from there.”